Commissioners: Our public forests should be restored and replanted
Oregon's 2020 wildfires will be seared in the hearts and minds of Oregonians, leaving a morbid black scar on our history and landscapes. Fires ripped through our communities forcing thousands to flee for their lives, burning small towns, obliterating our most treasured recreation spots, and taking the lives of loved ones. We are heartbroken and continue to mourn with our neighbors over our collective loss.
While the trauma will remain for some time, we can begin the healing process together. Recovering and rebuilding can be therapeutic. We should focus on caring for our heavily damaged towns, lives and forests.
This includes removing the sea of dead and dying trees surrounding our communities, creating lumber for rebuilding, and replanting new forests for future generations. Thousands of acres in need of treatment creates family-wage jobs and much-needed funding for reforestation efforts.
As county commissioners, we know our county governments are doing everything possible to help with recovery. We are counting on our state and federal partners to support recovery with quick action to restore public lands, maintain public access and reduce the risks of future wildfires. We applaud actions by public agencies to remove dead and dying trees along roadsides so roads, facilities and recreational areas can safely reopen. We are all in this together.
Or at least we thought we were.
Recently, a group of Portland environmental organizations sued the state to stop all post-fire restoration activities in our backyard. They filed the suit in Multnomah County, so the case won't even be heard by a jury of those whose homes were destroyed and are living in a blackened landscape.
A little perspective: the Labor Day fires burned more than a million acres; 60% of that is in federal forests where, because the same obstructionist litigation will run out the clock until the trees rot or reburn, less than 2% of the burned federal acreage will receive treatment, aside from roadside hazard removal. Even this meager effort likely will be litigated.
In the Santiam State Forest, 24,000 acres were within the fire perimeter. The Oregon Department of Forestry proposed salvage on just 3,000 of the most severely burned areas, leaving nearly 90% of it to recover naturally. Sale of the burned timber would pay for reopening and restoration of this public forest.
Yet leaving nearly 90% of state forests and 98% of federal forests untouched is not enough for these environmental groups. They demand leaving all standing dead trees regardless of whether they are along roadsides, near campgrounds, trailheads or in the backcountry.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of dead and dying timber will be left to fall, decay and provide kindling for future megafires. For decades. They may recover, but not in our lifetimes.
Failure to mitigate roadside hazards will result in tragic accidents, but it also will mean reduced public access. Most consequently, it will limit the ability of first responders and firefighters to safely do their jobs. More fires will be allowed to burn simply because our firefighters cannot access them. Search and rescue efforts will be hampered. For years we have called on the federal government to mitigate the heavy fuels that have accumulated on federal lands. Failure to restore and reforest will make the situation worse.
And we'll be the ones ominously watching the weather and praying lightning doesn't strike that tinder box again.
We call on Oregonians to reject obstructionist efforts that ignore the trauma, suffering and future livelihoods of fellow Oregonians. Help us move forward by supporting efforts to restore and replant our treasured forests.
Kevin Cameron is chair of the Marion County Board of Commissioners. Tootie Smith is chair of Clackamas County Board of Commissioners. Roger Nyquist is chair of the Linn County Board of Commissioners.
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